Sarah Littlejohn: Supporting the mental health of our students

by | Oct 10, 2019 | PSLT | 4 comments

You don’t need me to tell you that mental health is a significant issue – approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year [1].

But I did want to use today – World Mental Health Day (10 October) – to highlight the ways in which our University is tackling this growing issue.

A recent survey of 37,500 students from more than 140 universities across England, Scotland and Wales, revealed that one in five reported a current mental health diagnosis, with depression and anxiety disorders featuring highly. Half of the students who took part in the survey reported having thoughts of self-harm and 42.8% said they were often or always worried. And the stigma surrounding mental illness still persists with 75% saying they concealed their mental health symptoms from friends. [2]. It’s worth noting that the students taking part in this survey self-reported, so there may be some limitations with the data, but the findings do point to the scale of the issue.

Understanding the causes of these levels of mental health difficulties amongst young people is not straightforward. Some believe that there are powerful societal issues at play – from the social consequences of a long period of austerity to the ‘always on’ pressure of social media.

In their time with us our students are focused on their academic curriculum. But we are increasingly aware of the implicit ‘psychological curriculum’ that they are also engaged in. During their time with us our students – whether undergraduate, postgraduate taught or postgraduate research – will move through developmental hurdles, build a huge range of personal and emotional skills and face challenges that require psychological flexibility and resilience. Many of our students who enter at 18 or 19 years old will grow up with us, despite technically being adults when they arrive.

Around 40,000 students call The University of Manchester home – so providing mental health support for such a large and diverse community will always be a challenge. How do we provide the kind of specialised and individual support at the kind of scale that is required?  

Our University already has a range of support for students in place, but we’ve built on that to begin to address the mental health challenge through two new initiatives.

The first is a partnership between the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, our University, Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Bolton and the University of Salford – representing a combined student body of more than 100,000.

The new Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service (GMUSMHS) has now opened. It is staffed by NHS clinical psychologists, mental health nurses and a psychiatrist and aims to close the gap between university services and the NHS which students have often struggled to access. Students will be seen first in the University Counselling and Mental Health Service and then helped to access the new service if appropriate.

Our second initiative is called the Big White Wall. This is available to all students and staff at our University and is a 24/7 online platform that provides peer-to-peer support, moderated by trained counsellors, as well as a wealth of resources and online workshops and groups. It doesn’t replace face-to-face support, but it does supplement it.

The GMUSMSH is initially a two year pilot and the Big White Wall is a one year pilot which has been kindly funded by a generous donor. Both schemes will be evaluated to assess their impact.

The undoubted increase in demand for mental health support presents both a challenge and an opportunity. How can we continue to evolve the support we offer – your thoughts on this issue are very welcome.

Sarah Littlejohn, Head of Campus Life

You can find out more from Sarah and other University colleagues talking about mental health by listening to these podcasts.

[1] McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.

[2]. The research was conducted by the Insight Network and you can read more at: The Guardian



  1. Sara Latham

    Hello Sarah
    Given a number of high profile cases in the media recently, I wondered whether, at a central senior level, the University had become more flexible with the policy on Data Protection as far as enquiries from parents are concerned? At School level (in SALC) we are still holding the line and not discussing students with parents (or anyone else) without their written consent. This can of course become a very tricky situation, especially if the student does not want to give consent. We also have situations where a parent is very concerned but does not want the student to know that they have contacted the University, which then sometimes gives us no pretext on which to contact the student to offer support. It can be a difficult situation to be ‘in the middle’ at a time when student support is often so heavily criticised by the media.

    • Sarah Littlejohn

      The University has an agreed procedure for contacting emergency contacts (who may well be parents but equally may not be) The University seeks to balance the need to respect the privacy of our students and requirements under GDPR with concerns for their welfare and safety. We are not free to routinely discuss students with their parents or other third parties without their consent. Where significant concerns for a student emerge the policy provides a framework for escalation to the appropriate level for a decision made to safeguard the student. It is difficult to be in the middle of these competing responsibilities and so decisions about contact are made by the Head of Campus Life in discussion with the Information Governance Office and where necessary Simon Merrywest. Director for the Student Experience. I’m happy to talk over any general or specific issues if that would be helpful.

  2. Sarah Littlejohn

    Hi Saima, thanks for your comment. the Service is open during core hours – 9am-5pm. Students access the service through the existing University based Counselling and Mental Health Service. They’ll have an assessment there as usual and then, if appropriate, a referral can be made into the new service. Because the new service is specifically for students with more complex mental health difficulties it is effectively the top of the support triangle, as an addition to the existing resources and services that we offer. We haven’t got a lot of information online as we are keen for students to access the existing support services as usual and then decisions can be made about what’s the most appropriate next step.

  3. Saima Bashir

    Where can I find further information about the Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service? Opening times, how is a referral made, how many members of staff etc.

    When you google it there doesn’t seem to be a lot online.

    When you click the link it takes you to an article that was published in 2018.


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